BD Wong sounds a bit twitterpated as he fiddles with his headset. “We just finished our final rehearsal just before I called you,” he says, a hint of nervousness in his voice.
Wong has reason to feel nervous. November 10, he takes one of the biggest risks of his career as he steps into the role of director on a new production of The Great Leap at the esteemed Pasadena Playhouse. The play tells the story of a Chiense-American teenager who goes with an American college team to China to play in a “friendship game,” and of two coaches, one American, one Chinese who share a coplicated past. Together, they reflect on their lives and careers, as well as battle for the soul of the young player who wants to embrace his heritage and become a superstar.
Of course, audiences will know Wong from his long career as an actor, appearing on shows like Gotham and Law & Order: SVU as well as in the Jurassic Park film series. He also recently won glowing reviews for his own performance in two different productions of The Great Leap. Though he’s thrived in front of the camera, his greatest role may still be one of his earliest: as the cross-dresser Song Lilang in the original production of M. Butterfly on Broadway. Wong took home a Tony, Drama Desk, World Theatre, Outer Critics and Clarence Derwent Award for his performance–the only time in history an actor has won all five major theatrical awards for a single performance. Throughout his career, Wong has lived as an out gay man, marrying his husband Richert Schnorr in 2015, and raising his son Jackson, now age 19.
Queerty managed to grab some time with Wong–with and without his headset–to chat about The Great Leap, life as an out-actor, limitations of the industry, and transitioning to directing. The Great Leap runs November 10-December 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
So, just off the bat, the play takes place in 1971 and 1989. I’m sure those dates are very deliberate: Nixon went to China around 1971, and 1989 saw the Tiananmen Square riots, which were a major turning point in the Westernization of China.
Around that time, yeah. Nixon had brokered that deal sometime before . It has to do with that happening. And in 1989, the student protests that ended in Tiananmen Square are part of that too.
Well then, what does basketball have to do with Sino-American relations?
It’s interesting. Basketball is, by its very nature, a game in which an individual’s performance is actually revered and encouraged—more than in most sports. A person can be a star on a basketball team and still be a member of a team in a way that is noteworthy. It’s a team sport that has a sense of individuality to it.
That makes sense, especially in context.
The metaphor is really what does it mean to be an individual. The contrasting American to Chinese viewpoints of individuality are kind of polar opposites. We value individuality quite differently in the United States than they do in China. So those are the things that clash culturally in the play in a way that don’t in other plays. East-West relations, and all these other things we see in other plays. Here, I think we’re really concentrating on the idea of if an individual can live the kind of life he wants to. Here we encourage people to do what they want and follow their dreams.
So here’s this boy who’s hellbent on being a good basketball player, being a good basketball player and to prove he’s a good player, even for a Chinese person, which is kind of a sore spot for him. So he’s determined to stick out and be a star and show his individuality and accomplishments for his talent. Then you have a Chinese person who is the exact opposite: a person who has been raised to repress all his feelings and not stick out and to obey all orders of the Communist party. His stature is raised as a result of him towing the party line. Those two things, in relation to one another, are an interesting conversation about individuality.
The idea of the student protests that you mention is a really interesting thing. Those kids in Tiananmen Square were behaving in what they perceived to be a kind of American way.
Very much so.
They wanted Democracy. They had a romantic idea of China becoming a democracy or overthrowing communism. That came from their perception of American movies or the hearsay of it that Americans were happier and freer and had a right to voice their opinions and be themselves. So that is kind of interesting, because we have an American boy going there at a time all these Chinese kids are aspiring to be like him.
That is interesting. It’s also interesting that there are 18 years between 1971 and 1989. If Nixon goes to China around 1971, the kids who grew up with a more Westernized viewpoint would be coming of age.
I’m sure that’s no coincidence, historically speaking.
Right. The basketball coach in 1971 is a very young man. So that’s part of his journey.
Now, you’ve done this play twice as an actor in two totally different productions. I’ve heard you speak about, in the past, the way returning to a play enriches your understanding of it, and the power of it. In returning to it now as director, what has changed in the way it affects you? How has your understanding of it evolved?
That’s great. Thank you. My initial response is that I was lucky to have these two great productions of this play. As soon as I was tasked to direct it, I immediately realized one thing I could bring to the production that couldn’t be brought to the other two was my point of view as a Chinese-American. This is a point of view I share with Lauren [Yee, the playwright]. Lauren grew up in San Francisco. I grew up in San Francisco. The play takes place in San Francisco and China. So this particular world is very known to me. So that was something I was excited about.
These productions were both really successful productions, and we did really well in both of them. I got the chance to work with six other actors in both productions and enjoyed them immensely. So I thought that could really color my choices in the play. It sort of manifests in innumerable ways. I’m hoping that of all the people who see the play, that when Lauren sees it, that will be something that is noticeable to her.
Obviously, you know Lauren Yee, the very talented playwright whose young age makes me feel like I have nothing as a writer. She’s brilliant.
You do know she makes everyone feel that way, right? It’s not just you.
That’ s a relief. When you decided you wanted to direct, did you reach out to her for more insight? And let the record show, you’ve only had limited experience as a director.
I have limited experience, that’s true.
So what conversations did you have with Lauren?
I was lucky. There have been so many productions of The Great Leap last season and in seasons to come. I have come to enjoy contact with her, so I can text her a question and she’ll answer right away. That’s a luxury.
I can say “Hey Lauren, does this mean this, or does this mean that?” And she answers. It’s fantastic. I didn’t call her right away, but we did touch base. I told her “I’m going to have a lot of questions for you.” And I did. And it was really fun. It’s fun for her to explain things to me because I know the play really well.
That’s wonderful. So what tips did she give?
I would say the broad strokes of the play were not mysteries. So for me, the things were minute details that could help me shade certain things. Let me look at my texts…
Of course. Wow. I’ve never had a director actually go through his texts before.
They’re technical things. For example, there’s a photograph that’s described in the beginning of the play. There are two versions of this photograph: one is a different cropping. So I’m asking her specifically if the original picture is of a crowd, and then [the cropped version] zoomed in? And she writes, “Yep.” It’s nitpicky stuff, but when you see the show, you’ll see why it’s important. There are lots of loose conversations I have with her about the play.
That’s great. Directing is always such a huge undertaking, and as I understand it, you actually stage basketball scenes?
With four actors? That’s…
Foolhardy. Yes. A fool’s errand.
I love that. With that in mind, and given your close connection to the play, is it intimidating to take on the direction of something so close to you?
I don’t know if this is too much information, David, but it’s a kind of intimidation that I really like. I love the big question mark that needs to be answered and trying to figure out if it can be answered. So the whole nebulous idea of the ballgame on stage—first, I’ve been in two productions, and I know how it works. I know it’s possible. Then what becomes the challenge is putting my own stamp on it. That is always the trap of being a director of a revival. In order to put your own stamp on it, sometimes you do something wild or something that’s ridiculous.
So on the subject of intersectionality, how has doing the play enhanced your understanding of your own Chinese roots, and Chinese-American identity?
I would say the play makes me introspective about my feelings of being a Chinese-American as opposed to being Chinese. I really relate to the discussion in the play about going to China and not seeing yourself, not feeling like you’re home, because it isn’t your home. But somehow because you look like everyone that’s there, it creates a schism in your mind. You feel like you’re supposed to. And if you’re a certain kind of Chinese-American as I was, you’re taught that being Chinese is a very prideful thing. You connect with aspects of your root culture in a respectful way with your parents and grandparents. It’s very deep.
So because of that reverence for being and all things Chinese, you can have the assumption that going there is going to create some kind of closure or sense of full-circle that really doesn’t happen.
For me, there’s a huge language barrier. I don’t speak Chinese, and neither does the boy in the play. So I think people who are of a certain identity will look at the play and go how does this make me feel about who I am? What does it mean as a person who has a tribe?
And to use a parallel, this happens in the LGBTQ community in a very big way. As a gay person, you think you’re supposed to go to some event and we’ll all get along. And then you get there and think this is not my thing. I don’t like the same things as every other gay person. So it’s a phenomenon that’s very human.
Yet there are assumptions one makes that cause this to be something you don’t realize until it happens to you. It’s a sucky feeling, but it reminds you what the human condition really is. It gives you perspective.
You’re someone who has had a long career in film and theatre. Television. You have dozens of credits. You’ve also been out your entire career.
That’s damn impressive, considering how long you’ve been working. How do you feel that your being out-queer has affected the industry perception of you? Do you feel like you’ve encountered homophobia, or lost out on roles because of your queerness? This is something, in Queerty’s interview series, that keeps coming up with all kinds of creative types: actors, directors, musicians…
I feel like there’s a sensibility about an actor, or any person in the business, that is part and parcel to the way that commercial entertainment works.
That is, in order for people to kind of make their way through the business, you adopt a set of rules that works for you. Thinking outside of the box of those rules is a bit like upsetting the apple cart—everyone’s going to die because we made a rash decision. The people I’m interested in working with are the people that don’t think that way. There are very few jobs I want that I can’t have because they’re produced by people that think that way. I don’t want those jobs.
But the sensibility is absolutely entrenched. If you’re a blond woman of a certain age and look a certain way, you’re expected to act a certain way unless someone gives you a chance to not do that.
I’m not comparing myself to them, because racism is also a huge part of what keeps this alive. I would also say not really racism, but racially limited thinking.
Qualify that. What do you mean by limited thinking?
Well, let’s talk about Pose.
Always down. Let’s talk about Pose.
In Pose, we have some really great transgender actors in these roles. 10 years ago, the sensibility that would allow someone to go through the process of casting a transgender actor was virtually nonexistent.
So it required someone to turn a corner. Turning the corner is an essential part of breaking the door down. Before that, you have what I would call “trans-limited thinking:” the idea that a writer who writes a transgender role is limiting themselves to the hard truth that you won’t be able to cast it. And that’s limited thinking.
So if I’m writing a role of a blond woman with a 38-inch bustline who is a nuclear scientist and brilliant and superior to her male counterparts. Limited thinking allows me to think I can’t cast that part, that person doesn’t exist. So it causes you to make decisions based on fear and limited thinking. You lower the denominator in order to create something to survive and make the money you need to make.
And “thinking outside the box” is cliché, but it’s something I try to do. I try to move the needle. The only hope for that is for someone like Ryan Murphy to say trans actors need appointments. We can cast the show. Trans people can act. So that’s what I mean. Racially-limited thinking creates predictability, and pigeonholing and people who must be relegated to certain roles. So I worked really hard to not only be out, but I’ve always been a character actor. I’ve always tried to force people to see that I did different things, versatile things, that I have those in my toolbox.
I worked as a character actor most of my early career. I had a great character part on Broadway. Then in 2000, I got put under contract with Law & Order. And I did that for 11 years. I was very happy there. My son was born and I wanted to stay in New York. I need a contract that was regular, so I took this wonderful job. But it was the same character for 11. Years. On a procedural.
Very standard, middle of the road. And it was very important to me and afforded me great visibility for which I’m grateful. But it was what it was artistically. When I quit the show, I went out into the world and I was no longer a character actor. Limited thinking had caused people to close their minds about what kind of actor I was. They didn’t remember the earlier work I did.
It’s what have you done for me lately? So I didn’t work for two or three years. The one time I worked was on a TV show. Now get this: the one series regular job I got after Law & Order was this show called Awake, in which I played a therapist.
I was going to say: I don’t think I have ever seen a resume where an actor has played as many doctors and scientists as you have.
That’s right. That’s a whole other thing—a real thing for me. No more doctors! I could feel the narrow-minded thinking. And it’s so weird: all you have to do is rent movies from the 90s and realize I was a wackier person. I didn’t change. I did a show for 11 years that created this racially limited and generally limited thinking. Then somebody took a chance: the fine folks at Gotham gave me a really character-y part. And then Sam Esmail gave me a great part on Mr. Robot. So I started to rebuild.
Sure. You’re an actor with range.
And I’m more of a character actor than most actors. It’s funny that all the sudden people forgot or I became a “procedural actor.” To me that was kind of appalling. But recently, I got my mojo back. I stretched my sensibility.
And I’m not describing my own pathway as an actor for you. What I’m trying to describe is the phenomenon on limited thinking.
Do you think with that limited thinking…does it extend beyond “the suits” in the business? Does the audience share that limitation? To use your example of the busty blond, would an audience accept her as a nuclear physicist that is smart and competent?
I think things are shifting. I’ve always been a strong believer that we have never really given the audience credit for thinking in an unlimited way. Instead, we pander to what we think they want. Nowadays, there is so much more content. A show like Fleabag is a perfect show.
You would never have been able to pitch that show just a few years ago. They would have said, “Only edgy people will like that show.” A woman in an unsavory context? How is that relatable? I’ll tell you: through great writing and great acting. That can make you believe in and root for anyone. So unleashing content is vital to breaking down the audience’s own perception about what it thinks it wants. A good example also is Crazy Rich Asians. The creators will tell you they pitched the film, and people were constantly asking “Does she need to be Asian? Can’t she be white?”
Oh my lord.
Look it up and you’ll see. Of course, Kevin Kwan [writer of Crazy Rich Asians] and the people that created the film didn’t want that. They dodged a bullet by not working with those people. But the fact is [the business] thinks there are formulas. And the content is breaking that down. People like Phoebe Waller-Bridge [creator of Fleabag] are expressing themselves and we’re loving it. Content is so diverse now, and I don’t just mean racially diverse. I mean all kinds of people.
New voices. I love that. So I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but I recently saw the film version of M. Butterfly [directed by David Cronenberg, starring John Lone in Wong’s role. The film was critically lambasted and flopped at the box office].
Unfortunately, I was too young to see you do it on Broadway. But it’s a strange film, so I would love to get your thoughts.
It was a very odd proposition. I wasn’t objective about it.
I think there were mistakes made. I think it’s ok to say that now. There were mistakes made.
Were you offered the film?
Nooooo. Not at all.
And I feel like I dodged a bullet. I’m glad it worked out the way it did for everybody. Everybody got to do what they wanted. I have my experience with the play. Had I done the movie, I might not be doing Mr. Robot now.
I have my own theories about what David Cronenberg was going for, which is a film about fetishism and S&M. But some of the elements of the film are bizarre even in that regard.
Bizarre. Yes. It’s like wearing a hat on top of a hat: bizarre on top of something that’s already bizarre.
Well, maybe you can direct the revival of M. Butterfly.
Oh God! Yes. That would be fun.
We’d gladly cover it.
The Great Leap runs November 10-December 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse.